Sleeping in My Car at the End of the Month
How one expense put this gig worker back on the street
Things are tough going for me these days. They’re tough for a lot of people and I just happen to be part of the group. I’m being stretched to my limit on all ends and every time the sun sets, I tend to sit for a few minutes, take some deep breaths and remember there’s a chance to see another one.
I am reminded that though my struggles as an artist in Los Angeles are small, they can still collapse in on each other in rapid motion. It happens that way, I think, like a window falling shut. Problems tend to find their way home no matter who owns them.
This is the story of such a twenty-four hour collapse. A story of disappearing and coming up with the money in the twilight of my mid-thirties.
Last month, my Iphone bit the dust on the 28th day and flew on to join that great, metallic, trash bin in the sky. It undoubtedly reunited with my laptop from 2012 and this wasn’t the end of the world except it was how I made money when I wasn’t moonlighting as a copywriter during a pandemic and I couldn’t afford another one.
That’s right, I work part-time for Postmates, the poor man’s Pony Express. I can refer you if you like. I’m an independent contractor, but I still need a solid GPS.
What I’m saying is I planned on making about $150 at the end of April, but now it couldn’t happen. I also planned on going to my physical therapy appointment that week, but overslept due to a poorly timed muscle relaxer. That left me sleep deprived and short on cash on the morning of the 29th, in actuality the perfect state for spending the night in my hatchback like a human sardine trying to climb back into the can.
You can’t get in this type of situation without a couple of bad decisions. Then again, you won’t get in it by keeping a straight face either. Ever straddling that bright, red line between entrepreneur and bankrupt, I realized I was neglecting a second option of renting out my one bedroom apartment to a wayward stranger on Airbnb. I pulled the trigger late that afternoon. Before midnight, I had a booking for the 30th.
That was the easy part though. I still had to hit the streets for a night to earn that $150 toward rent. To be precise, I had to bed down in an L.A. thunderstorm without automatic locks or 20/20 vision. Forgive me, I forgot to mention I had recently failed an optometry test.
Cut to me hanging around a bit too long after my guest arrived the afternoon of the 30th on the express from San Francisco and the word “rattled” comes to mind.
“Any weekend plans?” I ask, my hand grasping several water bottles and jamming them into a grocery bag.
“Uh, are you sleeping on the couch?” my guest replies, arranging her bags next to my essential oils machine.
“Not exactly,” I say, and together our eyes look up to see lightning exploding against the Hollywood Hills.
“Just like Thor’s hammer,” she says.
“If there’s a power outage, email me." and I step outside.
Hustling and already drenched walking to the curb, I peel out a bit too quickly. “Stephen?” my neighbor yells. “Have a good weekend, Amy!” I scream back against the engine.
It is both thrilling and frightening to cut myself off from the world with my back against it. I feel anxious, but hungry. I decide to go to Burger King.
There, I map out a schedule in my semi-drenched notebook while homeless men sip lukewarm coffee and the rain pounds. One of them has a cell phone. The irony of asking him if I can use it stays with me after I finish trying to down two whopper juniors and some fries. I stare at him, but he is asleep with head hung low like a forgotten piece of fruit. I head for a coffee shop in Silver Lake for a change of scenery and better WiFi.
There, hours pass like cars inching along Sunset Boulevard as the clouds weep over Los Angeles. Dozens of eastsiders push into Cafe Tropical on a Friday afternoon or get pushed, it is hard to tell. Everyone looks the same here, I think. There’s a manic energy like someone’s house caught fire. Whoever they are, they have enough money to pay their way. I put two dollars toward a cafe con leche and wait for the mist to cover the windows.
At dusk, I snap awake at the table I’ve been using as a miniature office. I catch a glimpse of myself in my computer screen which has wisely powered off.
Rising, I throw my tiny cup in the trash bin and thank the barista. “What time is it?” I ask.
“5:45,” he replies, stunned.
“Perfect,” I tip my baseball hat. I’ve just enough time to make the movies.
Neatly fueled, I sidestep more raindrops and rumble north along Sunset as Silver Lake yields to Los Feliz. I look good for being on the run, I say to the rear view mirror. I feel like I’m a rancher in town from Colorado. I am driving a Nissan Versa with an engine that, in another life, surely powered an aerobatic airplane. I poke fun at it, but am grateful for it. I make a note to stop teasing it so much as tonight it will transform from car to igloo and I’d like to remain on good terms.
With wipers humming, I arrive to the Los Feliz 3, park and sweep myself up into a crowd for the briefest of moments. It is as when water gathers against an obstruction in a river and swirls on, in this case the Tacos Tu Madre on the corner of Vermont and Russell. I enjoy the feeling of it, being close to people without touching them. In a way it has come to define my life, the line between friendliness and intimacy among hipster populations.
As I break free, I catch myself wondering if I should spend money on a film in the state I’m in. The decision is easier because they’re showing Cold War, a Polish film by Pawel Pawlikowski. I have already spent so much this month to live in Los Angeles that a little more won't hurt. For an even $6.50, it might just set me free.
I choose the warmth of the flickering screen in lieu of rain-soaked sidewalks. The film is beautiful. It is the stuff of ageless romance. In it, a couple separated by class at the end of World War II is brought together by their devotion to music. They escape Poland for Paris together. She leaves him and marries an Italian philanderer. He pursues her, loves her and sacrifices for her happiness. In the end, she is the one who sacrifices for them both.
The audience is moved and gutted. We’ve witnessed something most of us will never experience in our lifetimes. As I exit the theater, I sense a feeling of togetherness mixed with timelessness, of wanting to share even more in the human experience while also realizing no one is here for me to share it with.
I remind myself there was no way for someone else to be here because I had no way to invite them. I shuffle to the Versa and drive back to the Burger King. If tonight is my last supper, I’d like it to be there. Hours later, I stop by the McDonalds across the street for an ice cream cone and more WiFi. The place is teaming with Hispanic men who meet there to gossip and watch YouTube videos of wild animals attacking each other.
As darkness falls, I head north on the 2 freeway before exiting along Verdugo Road. In the continued downpour, I’m not in Los Angeles, just a maze of concrete and rubber. As I turn to pass the pool at Glassell Park the feeling intensifies as if the nameless city knew I'd be arriving for a midnight swim. I pull over to the side of Eagle Rock Boulevard to brush my teeth and wash my face.
Minutes later, I attach my hoodie to my jacket and zip it up while losing balance beneath billowing, cannon shots of wind. “This is stupid,” I say aloud and a stream of white toothpaste spews into the running water and drifts away.
In the growing silence, I drive slowly among rows of parked cars and trucks with nothing but the accompaniment of my own squeaking brake pads. Eventually, they too cease. I am off York Street, just south of the Occidental campus as I peer through the darkness to stay beneath the elms that line its border.
The one thing I know about sleeping in your car is there is safety in numbers. Alone and you’re a good target for a flashlight. Stacked together, you’ve got a solid chance for the patrol car to just go floating by. It would have been smart of me to take that advice from AAA magazine or wherever the hell it came from instead of parking alone under a tree. I think about the toothpaste flying. “I’m an idiot,” I mumble softly and curl up in the backseat with the joint I've been saving.
It’s just after 1 A.M. when I wake in a crooked “L” shape to several loud, authoritative voices. They are rising and my toes are frozen. I should have kept my shoes laced up.
With my head closest to the sidewalk, I peer out toward the street and the flashing lights of two patrol cars. They are pulled up alongside what appears to be a tow truck. I can see the blue of the truck's logo directly across from me. The police are talking to the tow driver and formulating a plan between the three of them.
They're checking for permits, I think. Fuck! Now I’ll have to admit I’m broke and can barely see a hand in front of my face.
There, beneath the cover of sprawling campus trees, wrapped up in a sleeping bag my brother gave me for Christmas I lie as still as I ever have, just like I did during the all night training exercises at West Point. I remember those soaked me in similar precipitation. Hang around enough and life is a comedy of military proportions.
I just can’t bare to face anyone, I realize. It’s too embarrassing. Aside from apologizing, what would I even say to the police except, “Keep me in the Life game a little longer, Coach?”
As the voices continue, I realize that if I’m high enough this may not even be happening. Yep, that’s what I’m going with: an imaginary, potential arrest. Then, like the sound of Thor’s hammer again, a door slams and Boom!, another. Engines fire and I see two sets of beams cut through the Versa’s windows like searchlights. They pass over me toward the treeline and I hold my breath and listen.
In a turn of the wheel the voices are gone and the only sound is my own jubilation. I roll into the driver seat, blow a kiss toward the car they didn’t tow and pull away without looking in any direction. I take the first turn I can and zoom down 45th Street until I can make a U-turn at the intersection. I slide between two trucks, inch toward the curb, and pull the parking brake next to the graffitied side of a run-down auto shop.
Now, one side is the street and on the other is a brick wall and this is how it should have been. With my heart pounding, I am hemmed in properly. I am warm, sweaty, anxious, and safe.
I arrange my sleeping bag again atop two yoga mats that line my back seat. I’ll stay in the front a bit longer and take a muscle relaxer to ensure I fall asleep.
Now, with my pallet arranged only inches from my face, I crank the front seat a few notches and lie back. At this, I laugh for perhaps the second or third time this day. What are the odds, I think. That it’s the guy with a neck problem, not a calf strain, who lives like this?
A half hour later, the CBD pen slips from my grasp and rolls next to the gas pedal. I slip my shoes off and remember to lock the doors as I crawl back into bed.
There, curled up like a child under a shield of soft, falling rain I have the most tender of dreams. I am back home in Texas and with someone. She is younger, but she understands me. We are in a small house eating a meal together in the warmth of spring. The place where we are living, the table where we sit feels like it was fashioned out of something already worn in over a long, steady piece of time. In waking hours, this would be a shock to me, but here it slides into a place as evenly a carpenter attaching a piece of wood. I do not question it like I question my present troubles, but rather accept it and let it lend a hand. She reaches hers across the table to the back of my neck. She places it against the pain which turns to water and then to air and my eyes open again.
I lie askew on the yoga mats, my back aching and neck tight as climbing knots. I tilt my head back and discover the cold has fogged the windows in a sheen of grey matter. All six windows are covered, even the ones closest to the graffiti wall. They are purple like I imagine my insides. They are the color of insides bursting out.
I doze a while longer until it all comes seeping in: the rent money, the phone, the traveler from San Francisco (her name is Sunflower by the way). All these things I decide to leave behind in the midnight storm. I’ll leave them at least for a chance to make myself dry again.
I decide to go back to the McDonalds and nurse a coffee until my guest leaves and the money hits my account. Afterward I’ll withdraw the $1700 and leave it for my landlord in an envelope, hopefully without seeing him, hopefully without seeing anyone if I wait long enough.
I realize this adventure is not the life I envisioned for myself at thirty-seven as an educated, bright and curious man. Yet, as it goes with life, it must be experienced in order to be lived and that includes figuring out which roof to put over your head if one is unavailable.
You didn’t freeze, you just got humbled, as I drop the money into the garage. I climb the bungalow steps and wipe my feet at the door. “Hello?” I say upon entering, hoping that Sunflower hasn’t sat around smoking something and forgetting to head back north.
The place is empty and I’ve made it back one more time. I lie down on my bedroom floor to stretch out my shoulders. I am in pain and because of that, alive and hungry.
I decide to make some breakfast. Today is May 1st and I’ll lay low, but off the ground, until tomorrow comes.
I stand up and pull four dollars from my pocket.